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Missouri Senate gives initial approval to ethics bill, rebukes push for contribution limits

A legislative ethics reform bill won initial approval Wednesday in the Missouri Senate. But debate, which spanned a little more than an hour, focused more on what wasn’t included in the legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican, sponsored the measure which bars members of the legislature from serving as paid political consultants, mandates lawmakers wait two years after leaving office before becoming a lobbyist and implements stricter disclosure requirements for lobbyist gifts, among other provisions.

He’s said repeatedly that he worked to tailor a narrow bill that he felt could ultimately win legislative approval.

Several senators, however, argued that true ethics reform must include campaign contribution limits, which were approved by voters in the mid-90s but thrown out by the General Assembly in 2008.

Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat, offered a contribution cap amendment, but Republican leaders ruled it out of order.

“Using a procedural move to avoid voting for campaign limits shows how out of touch the legislature has become,” LeVota said.

Earlier, lawmakers rejected an amendment offered by Democratic Sen. Scott Sifton that would ban lawmakers from accepting lobbyist gifts.

Missouri is the only state in the nation with both no limits on political contributions and no caps on the amount of gifts lobbyists can give to elected officials.

Critics contend that at best that dynamic has hurt public confidence in the political system, and at worst, has had a corrupting influence on policy.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican, said Wednesday that contribution limits are not the silver bullet that proponents make them out to be. There were plenty of loopholes, Dempsey said, that allowed those wishing to circumvent the system to do so.

“It did not work before,” he said. “The federal level has very strict contribution limits, but has that taken money out of the politics? No, it’s just become more obscure as to who is working against an issue or candidate.”

Sen. David Pearce, a Warrensburg Republican, guessed that he has cast more than 20,000 votes in his legislative career. But his vote in 2008 to undo voter-imposed contribution limits was “the worst vote I’ve ever taken,” he said.

Pearce is sponsoring legisltion to reinstate contribution limits. Dempsey said the door was not closed on a discussion the issue down the road. But that he felt they did not fit in the ethics bill approved Wednesday.

Richard’s ethics bill, which passed unanimously, needs one more vote in the Missouri Senate before it goes to the House.

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